Tuesday, December 11, 2007


By William Fisher

Maybe the story is apocryphal, maybe not, but here it is anyway, courtesy of the Republican National Convention blog:

When Dana Perino was six years old, she stood on a milk crate in her Denver house, held up an American flag, and told her parents, "I'm gonna work in the White House." By third grade, she and her father, Leo Perino, were debating the news of the day at the dinner table.

"He wanted me to have read the newspapers and to have picked out one or two articles to discuss by the time he got home and then we always watched the evening news together and my Dad and I would always watch the Sunday shows as well," said Perino.

Which makes it even more bizarre that the president’s press secretary never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After all, she’s an educated person -- Ponderosa High School, the University of Southern Colorado, grad school at the University of Illinois, work on the Hill, and so forth.

And the event she says she never heard of isn’t some arcane happening from ancient history. It played out only ten years before she was born. And it wasn’t just any ordinary event. It was arguably the Cold War’s scariest threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known as M.A.D. It was the time when U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev faced off over Soviet ballistic missiles being stationed in Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida coast. Long story short: Nikita blinked first and M.A.D. was averted.

Now, not to be uncharitable, none of us can know everything. And Ms. Perino’s cluelessness is nowhere near as egregious as the President not knowing that there are Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs before he invades a country where both groups live.

But the Perino deficit strikes me as emblematic of much that’s wrong in the Bush Administration:

A secretary of defense who knows nothing about military history, military strategy, or how the military works. An assistant secretary of state who is a defeated candidate for a governorship with no refugee experience put in charge of dealing with the millions fleeing from Iraq. An undersecretary of state charged with resurrecting America’s “image” abroad whose preparation for the job was as a Texas TV reporter. Another put in charge of immigration and border security with no relevant experience whatever. A pro-consul in Iraq with no Middle East experience, much less languages, filling Green Zone jobs so long as the applicants vow to repeal Roe v. Wade. And, of course, that heck-of-a-job guy who ran FEMA. The list goes on and on.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was a young, eager, and very low-level functionary in the Kennedy Administration (I was thrilled that someone higher up thought enough about me that they assigned me a secret spot in a secret tunnel in a secret mountain in North Carolina – in case the entire government had to relocate).

The Kennedy Administration certainly wasn’t perfect. The White House, for example, could have made good use of a few people with gray hairs and knowledge of how you talk to a senator. But the huge preponderance of the president’s 3,000-plus political appointees were people who had spent their entire adult lives preparing for the jobs they got. They really knew what they were doing. JKF’s best and brightest were neither ideologues nor political hacks, though there were a few of both. By and large, they were dedicated and they were competent.

I fear that history will look back on the time of George W. Bush not only as a time of American arrogance, American exceptionalism, and America’s abandonment of its most dearly treasured principles. I also fear that the judgment of history will serve to strengthen right-wing canards about government not being able to do anything right.

My hope is that the next administration will choose people who can get it right.


By William Fisher

A coalition of more than 130 religious organizations has joined the growing chorus of individuals and groups calling for appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate allegations regarding the CIA's destruction of videotapes and its use of "harsh" interrogation techniques.

In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) reminded the nation’s top law enforcement officer of his testimony during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

“A key point of controversy during your confirmation process involved your statement that one particular ‘harsh’ interrogation technique (namely, waterboarding) was not necessarily torture,” the group wrote, adding: “It is possible that top Justice Department officials may have been involved in counseling the CIA about both the techniques used and the handling of the tapes.”

For these reasons, the group wrote, “We believe it is necessary for you to appoint a Special Counsel, independent of the normal Justice Department chain of command, to conduct this investigation. We believe a Special Counsel is critical to achieve the confidence of the American people in the outcome of such an investigation.”

NRCAT’s letter cited a December 7 New York Times article, in which several officials said that "the tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks." Furthermore, there appears to be credible evidence that requests for the tapes by a federal court at the time such videotapes were intact may have been ignored by the CIA. These two allegations, if true, would be evidence of the use of illegal interrogation tactics by U.S. personnel and an effort to cover-up that fact.”

These allegations, it said, “raise serious concerns that must be fully and fairly addressed in order to retain the trust and confidence of the American people in our intelligence and justice systems.”

The NRCAT letter was signed by Executive Director Rev. Richard Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, and the organization’s president, Linda Gustitus. Gustitus is former chief of staff to Illinois Democratic Senator Carl M. Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

NRCAT’s founder, Rev. George Hunsinger of the Princeton University Theological Seminary, told us, “The destroyed videos reportedly depict waterboarding in action. To acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding that the sun rises in the east.”

He added, “After World War II Japanese soldiers who practiced it were prosecuted as war criminals.”

In an online interview, Hunsinger asked, “Why must our public officials and would-be office-holders persist in evading the elementary truth about a technique used by monsters like Pol Pot and Pinochet, and that is being used against Buddhist monks today – to say nothing of our own secret prisons? All the dissembling in high places that makes these shocking abuses possible must be brought to an end. But they will undoubtedly continue unless those responsible for them are held accountable. Clearly a joint probe by the Justice Department and the CIA -- agencies that are both seriously compromised -- is not enough. A Special Counsel is an essential first step.”

Following Judge Mukasey’s confirmation testimony, NRCAT wrote the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing deep concern about the Mukasey’s responses on the subject of torture and urging the committee members to "approve a nominee as Attorney General who is unequivocal in his or her stance against the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." Mukasey wrote the Committee saying that he found waterboarding “personally abhorrent” but declined to say whether the practice constituted torture.

Gustitus and Killmer told the committee that Judge Mukasey's answers "leave open the door to the use of techniques by the U.S. government that would be cruel, inhuman and degrading and that could amount to torture."

Referring to the period when Alberto Gonzalez was Attorney General, Gustitus and Killmer said, "It is time to turn a new page. It would be tragic to allow an individual, despite his or her legal training and ability, who has not clearly rejected the illegal and immoral practices of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to become the leading law enforcement officer of our nation."

NRCAT's members include representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Quaker, Muslim, and Sikh communities. More than 18,000 individuals have signed NRCAT's "Statement of Conscience" against torture.

NRCAT is generally categorized as a “progressive” organization. More conservative religious organizations have largely remained silent on the “TapeGate” controversy.

The issue exploded into the headlines on December 7, after Central Intelligence Director (CIA)Michael V. Hayden announced that the CIA made videotapes in 2002 of its officers administering harsh interrogation techniques to two al-Qaeda suspects but destroyed the tapes three years later. Hayden said the action was taken to protect CIA employees from possible criminal prosecution.

The CIA’s top lawyer reportedly advised against the tapes’ destruction and similar counsel is said to have come from then White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

The tapes showed the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, and a second high-level al-Qaeda member who was not identified. Zubaydah has been identified by U.S. officials, who spoke to the press on condition of anonymity, as one of three al-Qaeda suspects who the CIA subjected to "waterboarding," a technique that simulates drowning.

The tapes were destroyed on the order of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., then the CIA's director of clandestine operations. They were destroyed after the Justice Department (DOJ) told a federal judge in the case of al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui that the CIA did not possess videotapes of a specific set of interrogations sought by his attorneys.

The CIA also failed to turn the tapes over to the 9/11 Commission despite their request. The Commission demanded all documentation related to its work and largely used on classified interrogation transcripts to construct its account of the events of that day. The Commission was Congressionally mandated to investigate the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The recordings were destroyed despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programs. The judges’ rulings came in connection with lawsuits filed by Guantanamo detainees who went to court to challenge the basis of their detention.

Multiple investigations of the tapes’ destruction are already underway. The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), and ranking Republican Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) yesterday announced that the panel will conduct its own investigation. The lawmakers said that Hayden's assertion that the committee had been "properly notified" of the destruction "does not appear to be true." It is likely the Senate Intelligence Committee will also investigate the matter, and the Justice Department (DOJ) and the CIA inspector general's office have already begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes' destruction.

At the White House daily press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Dana Perino announced she was “not allowed” to discuss the issue because it might compromise ongoing investigations.